The opening section of Parashat Vayishlach tells of Yaakov’s preparations for his dreaded reunion with his brother, Esav, who was approaching with an army of four hundred men. Yaakov’s preparations included an impassioned prayer, in which he expressed his gratitude for the kindness God had showered upon him until that point: “I am unworthy of all the kindnesses…that You have performed for Your servant, for I crossed this [river], the Jordan, with but my staff, and I have since become two camps” (32:11). Yaakov recalls how he had nothing but his staff when he left Canaan twenty years earlier, and had since built a large family and amassed a considerable fortune.
The Tosafists, in Da’at Zekeinim to Parashat Teruma (Shemot 25:5), draw an intriguing association between Yaakov’s staff and the Mishkan constructed by Benei Yisrael in the wilderness. According to the Da’at Zekeinim, this staff was used to construct the beri’ach ha-tikhon, the central beam that ran from one end of the Mishkan to the other to hold it together. This staff was preserved by Yaakov’s children and their descendants throughout the Egyptian exile, and was then used to form the central beam of the Tabernacle.
The question naturally arises as to the meaning behind this association drawn between Yaakov’s staff and the Mishkan. How might Yaakov’s staff be relevant to the construction of a Mishkan as a “home” for the divine presence?
Yaakov makes mention of his staff in this context to emphasize his state of impoverishment as he made his way to Charan, the fact that he had nothing but a walking stick. Symbolically, then, this staff represents extreme austerity. The Mishkan, by contrast, was a luxurious structure with furnishings made from gold and other precious materials. The wealth and grandeur on display in the Mishkan, which was needed to give honor to God, could potentially lead us to mistakenly afford excessive importance to material wealth. Looking at the Mishkan, we might reach the conclusion that serving the Almighty requires the kind of opulence needed to construct His Earthly abode. Da’at Zekeinim therefore reminds us that the “beri’ach ha-tikhon,” the central “beam” which supports the Mishkan and underlies the concept it represents, is Yaakov’s staff. At the core of the Mishkan experience is the sense of “be-makli,” that ultimately we own nothing, as everything is mercifully given to us by our loving, compassionate Father. The grandeur and majesty of the Mishkan does not reflect its essence; its essential quality is not gold and silver, but rather a simple walking staff, our ability to feel our dependence on God and to connect with him meaningfully without allowing ourselves to be distracted by material luxury.